Create: How our digital transformation won us a Charity Times Award

Create's founder and CEO, Nicky Goulder, describes how the charity's digital transformation during the pandemic helped to win them a Charity Times Award

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I can still remember 24 March 2020 as though it were yesterday: the day Create’s office – in an eerily silent Moorgate – was locked by the landlord. As I walked home across London Bridge, not knowing when I would be allowed to return, my head reeled: we had entered lockdown; every Create project had been removed from the diary; and our participants were facing months of unrelenting loneliness and hardship.

Create works with the UK’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and adults. Our professional artists run projects in music, dance, photography, drama and a host of other artforms, enabling participants to build skills and confidence, collaborate with others, and improve their wellbeing. Before the pandemic hit, all of these life-enhancing projects were delivered in-venue. It was unthinkable that we would remain cut off from our participants when they needed us more than ever.

Zoom is now so familiar that it seems impossible that I had never heard of it back then. And we had certainly never delivered a project digitally. But all that was about to change.

During the next fortnight, we researched, consulted, designed, piloted, safeguarded and launched an entirely new way of working – Create Live! – which led to the busiest year in Create’s 18-year history. During 2020/21, we designed and delivered 59 projects/938 workshops across the UK that connected, empowered, inspired, upskilled and enhanced the wellbeing of 1,303 participants.

Their response has been incredible. Here’s a sample: “Taking part in Zoom workshops is a lifeline.” “I don’t feel so alone.” “I’ve felt more upbeat and positive.”

We worked closely with our artists to design projects that would be effective digitally. For some, participants were encouraged to find inspiration in their homes, perhaps through taking photographs of prized possessions, or experimenting with light; for others, they escaped into their imaginations, creating collages, zines and stories full of vibrant characters and images. We always co-create our projects with our community partners in consultation with the participants, and this continued during lockdown.

It’s been a year of huge challenge and change for everyone. But our Create Live! project concept has enabled us to deliver high-quality, live, interactive, collaborative, creative workshops with groups of participants in the safety of their homes that are fun, build skills and reduce isolation. What’s more, going digital has enabled us to extend our reach to participants who cannot access workshops in-venue.

Where there were issues with digital delivery, we reacted quickly: for example, we ran a telephone music project connecting older people who were unable to access Zoom; latterly we worked with a corporate partner to provide tablets and training for older people, connecting them at last. We also transformed our fundraising, delivering a Virtual Gala with our Patron Dame Evelyn Glennie and young carer Abi that raised vital funds for our work.

Collaboration is central to our model, so it was essential that we shared our experience and learning with other organisations. I wrote a blog for Arts Council England about our digital transformation, and some of our community partners were upskilled to launch their own online projects. One told us: “We’ve learned everything we know about Zoom from Create; we are using it ourselves now regularly for activities: baking next week!”

We discovered that we had been shortlisted for the Charity Times Digital Transformation of the Year award as we celebrated our 18th anniversary. It was a lovely coincidence and a wonderful recognition of the commitment, passion, determination and drive of everyone who is involved in Create: our staff, our professional artists, our Trustees, our Patrons, our volunteers, our funding and community partners, and – above all – our participants.

I feel hugely privileged to lead a charity that constantly goes the extra mile for our participants. For me personally, the incredible children and adults who we work with continue to inspire and motivate me every day; and transformed by lockdown experience.

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